Do we need account people ?
The News Corp debacle proved a showcase for that very human trait, which is to seek to pin blame on anyone within reach who might conceivably be responsible for the mess you’re in.
And this search for a scapegoat leads me inexorably to the role of the account person in advertising.
The game of blaming the account person has proved very enduring, because normally account people are much smarter than creatives and therefore able to slide out of the multiple accusations levelled at them.
In many agencies you can enjoy watching an almost eternal game in which creatives attempt to pin a donkey’s tail onto account people skittering around with the agility of mountain goats.
Although I often wonder why anyone would go through 5 years of higher education, just to get abuse heaped on them as they pay the taxi bill.
I was doing some creativity workshops in Barcelona the other day, and I asked the students whether they were on the creative side of the industry or the non-creative.
And I started thinking about that simplistic division we create – which implies that account people can’t contribute to the creative process.
Because that in itself is an enormous waste of highly intelligent talent.
But it brings up a thornier question – which is, what role should account people play ?
In the old days, account people acted as middle-men – presenting work etc. And before we scoff too loudly at that structure, it’s worth remembering that under that regime, 36% of people said the ads were better than the programmes (as opposed to about 4.3% now), and we had the so-called Golden Era of creativity.
But it doesn’t seem tenable now, because clients demand to meet creatives.
(And I can see why. If you were doing work on your house, would you want to talk to the architect or someone who can only guess at what the architect has in mind ?)
But if clients are increasingly focussing on the creative talent, shouldn’t the industry be focussing more on promoting creative talent ? As I told the Barcelona workshops, that’s the one thing which clients can’t replicate in-house.
If only because most creative people want to work in funky offices in Soho or Shoreditch.
Or at the very least, within striking distance of a decent latte.
But if you look at the tops of agencies, they’re almost exclusively run by people from account handling backgrounds.
And I think that’s why the general standard of creativity, right across the industry, is so low.
We should be creating partnerships at the top, with equal creative representation.
Further down the tree, the problem is this. We’re still treating account people as go-betweens, a demeaning role at the best of times, and increasingly an unnecessary one, too.
What I’d like to see is account people merged with planners, and re-christened as business directors. Their role in the agency would be to take responsibility for the commercial side of things.
Because at heart, that is what advertising is – creativity meeting commerce.
It would be their job to make sure that the commercial pressures facing clients were properly understood and integrated into the creative solutions being put forward.
This might be the intention in some agencies, but at the minute it all seems rather messy and unfocussed.
And I suspect that, no matter what I say here, it will carry on that way.
It may be that the future is all about small groups of generalists – 3 or 4 people sitting in a corner of Starbucks, who take on projects for clients and call in other skill sets on an ad hoc basis.
(Which I happen to think is a great model.)
But it’s also worth noting that the biggest problem facing the industry right now is the breakdown of trust between clients and agencies.
This is down to a whole host of factors – agencies failing to get to grips with digital issues quickly enough, bigger issues of complacency, agencies giving away research and media skills, having unsustainable financial models, not caring enough about creativity, greed, etc etc etc.
But building that trust up again will need a total re-invention of “account handling” skills.
We don’t need someone to pay the taxi and ask you how your weekend was.
We need commercial nous and a system that recognises a shared sense of responsibility.
Account directors could help immeasurably in that respect.